HIV in Nigeria

There are 22.4 million people in Nigeria living with HIV, said a Fogarty scholar at a campus lecture Friday on the state of HIV in Nigeria.

And though 750,000 affected people require antiviral therapy, only 198,000 people were treated last year—about 10 percent.  “This is an area that really bothers me,” said Ifeyinwa Rita Onwuatuelo, who is a visiting Nigerian scholar on a Fogarty scholarship conducting research with the Center for Global Health.

Onwuatuelo has worked since 2004 in the field of HIV/AIDS and is currently working as the Care & Support Officer at the Program Office of AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria in Abuja.

Unlike the transmission of the HIV virus in the U.S., which is mainly a result of same-gender sex, 80-95 percent of the cases in Nigeria are passed on through heterosexual intercourse. 15-30 percent are passed on to unborn babies through mothers during pregnancy.

One of the key factors driving the rapid transmission rate is an overarching belief that individuals aren’t at risk for infection, which leads to less caution in making sexual decisions.  “People think ‘I cannot get it, only other people do,’” Onwuatuelo said, which is erroneous and furthers the current cycle.

Some contributing issues include inter-generational sex, sex with multiple partners, inefficient services to treat sexually transmitted infections and poverty.  Another major problem is the stigma and discrimination that comes along with an HIV diagnosis, which can deter people from seeking treatment or telling others about their diagnosis.

“This is one of the biggest issues,” she said.  “We need to do more to educate people so the cycle can stop.”

Developing countries such as Nigeria are 19 times more likely to be infected with HIV than the general population. And the virus has a major impact on society and its institutions—“HIV places a major burden on families economically, socially and psychologically,” she said.

It can cause families to reject infected members and cause issues in terms of family unity.  It can also affect a family’s economic status because diagnosed individuals might not be able to work, Onwuateleuo added. And 2.23 million children are orphaned because of AIDS in Nigeria, a number that is still growing.

Churches and community organizations may also reject people who have been diagnosed.  “Religions may discriminate against the faithful [who have been infected] as sinners,“ she said, which isolates infected people who need a support system more than ever.

Some of the treatment and prevention strategies the government and NGOS are employing are HIV counseling and sexual education testing, promoting the use of condoms and increasing media campaigns and public awareness.  These types of services need to be increased, she said, along with access to antiviral treatments drugs.

But with the efforts of the Nigerian government, the U.S. government and organizations such as the Bill Gates Foundation, access to treatment and prevention programs continue to grow.  With a continued push for early diagnosis and treatment, education and awareness programs and more preventative strategies, HIV can be managed, Onwuatuelo stressed.

“Attitudes are gradually changing,” she said. “But it’s not just a one day thing.  We have to continue fighting.”

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